Barroso is favourite as deadline is set for EU leadership deal

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The Independent Online

Portugal's Prime Minister, Jose Durao Barroso, was last night being lined up as the next president of the European Commission, as the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who holds the EU presidency, said he was confident he had found the right candidate for the job.

Portugal's Prime Minister, Jose Durao Barroso, was last night being lined up as the next president of the European Commission, as the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who holds the EU presidency, said he was confident he had found the right candidate for the job.

Mr Ahern said he believed "we will get an agreement" next week on the choice of the next Commission president, the issue which provoked a bitter row at a summit last week.

Although Mr Ahern did not mention Mr Barroso by name, the Portuguese premier has already emerged as the favourite, and reports from Portugal have indicated he is prepared to take on the job.

Yesterday Mr Barroso met the Portuguese President, and an announcement of his candidature was expected last night.

Mr Ahern has taken a range of soundings but said he had not spoken to leaders of all the EU's 25 nations. Crucially, he had not consulted the French President, Jacques Chirac, or the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, but was due to do so last night. France and Germany were two of the countries thought to have reservations about Mr Barroso because of his support for the US-led war in Iraq.The other one is Spain, where the newly elected socialist government is a fierce critic of US policy in Iraq.

Diplomats said the deal was not yet in the bag because the Irish government was seeking a unanimous choice and had yet to finish its consultations. When those are completed today, Mr Ahern could decide to convene a special summit for Tuesday.

During his political career, Mr Barroso has made the transition from former Maoist to political conservative. Outside Portugal he has had a low profile, and even at home many observers believe him fortunate to have come to power.

The difficulties of selecting a Commission candidate have been increased by the assumption that the next president should be drawn from the centre-right to reflect the outcome of the European elections. Mr Barroso indeed satisfies that important criteria.

If he is chosen next week, the Portuguese premier will become only the second Commission president not to come from one of the EU's six founder members.

Portugal is, however, inside all the main areas of EU integration, including the eurozone and the Schengen free travel zone ­ satisfying a key Franco-German demand.

Mr Ahern is determined to avoid a repetition of the row at last week's EU summit at which the UK, Italy and Poland blocked the Franco-German candidate for the job, Guy Verhofstadt, the Prime Minister of Belgium.

The Irish will therefore only schedule a summit over dinner on Tuesday if they think a deal is in the bag. One minister said: "The dinner will only happen if it is a rubber-stamping exercise." Another British source added: "Barroso is coming up strongly on the rails."

In London, Tony Blair made it clear he would not seek to block Mr Barroso. Though the Prime Minister is privately keen for Mr Ahern to land the post, Mr Ahern played down his own prospects in talks with Mr Blair yesterday.

The pressure for a quick resolution is great because MEPs are timetabled to confirm a successor to the current president, Romano Prodi, at their session on 20 July.

Among other candidates, Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, has so far ruled himself out; Peter Sutherland, the Irish chairman of BP and former European Commissioner, seems to have fallen foul of French objections; both Michel Barnier, the French Foreign Minister, and Jean-Luc Dehaene, the former Belgian premier, are unlikely to get past British objections. Spain's Javier Solana, who would be acceptable to all EU leaders, suffers the handicap of coming from the centre-left.

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